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Windy Region Opposes Firm’s Fertilizer Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing people learn quickly when they live in the Antelope Valley is that the wind can really blow.

On Thanksgiving night a couple of years ago, the gusts were so strong that a barn on the farm where the Bio Gro company has its local operations blew three-quarters of a mile down the road.

That is why many of the firm’s neighbors, along with county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, vehemently oppose Bio Gro’s proposal to truck tons of treated human waste from Los Angeles and other places to the High Desert, where it will bake in the open air before being sold as fertilizer.

Today, however, the Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the final report on the proposal’s environmental impact and to grant permission for the work to begin.

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Antelope Valley residents contend that the proposal is the latest example of what they say is a more than 20-year effort to make the High Desert a dumping ground for waste from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Last summer, the county Regional Planning Commission voted to nearly double the capacity of a Lancaster landfill that has a history of accepting waste from as far away as Cypress.

“The cities and counties are starting to run out of room,” said Dave Vannatta, Antonovich’s planning deputy. “So where are they going to take the stuff? . . . I think it could be a real problem.”

Bio Gro is owned by a division of Waste Management, the largest garbage collection and dump operating company in the nation, which also owns the Lancaster landfill. The company failed to win approval from the Regional Planning Commission for its plan to make and sell soil amendments from the sewage sludge and other waste.

In 1996, commissioners turned the project down by a 5-1 vote after Bio Gro refused to consider enclosing the operation so that the wind would not blow dust from the decomposing sewage toward nearby homes.

But company officials, believing that they would get a more sympathetic hearing from the Board of Supervisors, appealed the decision, and last year won the board’s conceptual approval.

The facility would be used to mix and compost up to 500 wet tons of municipal sewage per day, and 1,000 wet tons of organic wastes such as yard trimmings and manure.

The waste is to be placed out to decompose in rows that are 850 feet long and seven feet high. When it has finished composting and its moisture content has been reduced to 37%, it will be sold to a distributor, who can either truck it to farms or put it in bags to sell at garden stores.

“If you go to Kmart or Home Depot, and read the ingredients on soil amendments, you will see that many of them are made with biosolids,” the industry jargon for treated human waste, said Bio Gro technical services coordinator Linda Novick.

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It’s an idea that is appealing to environmentalists, so it’s been hard for the neighbors and for local politicians to win much sympathy from state environmental regulators. Both the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District signed on to the project, as long as the company agreed to put up wind berms and pave the area so the waste doesn’t leach into the ground-water supply.

But local officials--including a newly created local Air Pollution Control District--are fuming, saying that regulators in far-off Los Angeles don’t care about the dust, smells and ground water concerns of the Antelope Valley.

The Lancaster City Council opposes the plan, as do the town councils of several nearby communities. In particular, they say, the high winds will blow the drying compost across the desert, contributing to air pollution in an area in which ozone and particulate levels already exceed state standards.

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“Nobody could object to turning sewer sludge into a usable product,” said R. Lyle Talbot, of High Desert Citizens Against Pollution. “It’s the location that we’re objecting to, and the fact that they won’t put a cover over it. . . . If you’ve ever been in the Antelope Valley and know of these tremendous winds we have--it’s not such a good idea to have it exposed to those winds.”

The High Desert winds, according to the Antelope Valley Air Pollution Control District, have a much higher velocity than reported by the company and the county.

Chuck Fryxell, air pollution control officer for the area, said he is particularly concerned that summer winds, which average 20 to 25 mph, will blow particulates and heavy metals into the air.

When the new air district was set up, Fryxell said, the first thing board members did was fire off a series of letters to the Los Angeles County supervisors and the South Coast Air Quality Management District about the Bio Gro project.

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“Everything we’re saying is falling on deaf ears,” he said. “But we’re stuck with the project.”

The district plans to impose stringent conditions on the operation, and one board member has threatened to “shut them down” if the dust or other pollutants are higher than allowed.

But Fryxell said the district might not have the clout to stand by its threats, because the air management district indicated that the project was acceptable.

“We can’t say that they must enclose it” as the Regional Planning Commission had recommended and as the cities have demanded, Roberts said. “But we can wait until we find particulates, and then we can say, ‘control it or we will shut you down.’ ”

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